The RoverJune 21, 2014
After the success of his debut feature, Animal Kingdom (2010), David Michod should have been in a position to make any film he liked. One imagines promising scripts and stories piled high on his desk; offers and ideas arriving by post, phone and email. Or maybe not. The movie industry seems glamorous to outsiders but a film set is basically a workplace. For every idea that gets carried through to completion, hundreds are discarded. To find the perfect follow-up to a brilliant debut presents difficulties that should not be underestimated.
That second feature, The Rover, has arrived with a tremendous sense of anticipation. It takes time for that feeling to dissipate as the minutes tick by and another grim scenario, another post-apocalyptic cliché, is added to the pile. By the time the lights come on, one is looking for signs of life amid the wreckage. Whatever stories Michod had on his desk, instead, he decided to go with a half-baked idea he cooked up with his actor mate, Joel Edgerton. If they did their thinking over a beer they should have taken a sceptical look at the results in the morning.
The frustrating part of this enterprise is that Michod’s obvious talents as a director are undermined by the story and script. Assisted by Natasha Braier’s cinematography, he has made a film that is always visually engaging, whether we are viewing the desert landscape or a tense confrontation between characters. We are drawn in by the look of the film, but constantly expelled by the discontinuities of the narrative.
The story is set in the Australian outback, “ten years after the collapse”, whatever that means. Civilisation seems to have suffered some disastrous breakdown, with only a smattering of multi-cultural desperados living from hand to mouth in these barren regions. Yet there is still food and petrol to be had, so long as one pays with American dollars. Although these enclaves seem as lawless as any one-horse town in a spaghetti western, there are groups of uniformed soldiers who keep the peace. Are they employed by the government, or by the mining companies that still seem to be digging ore from the ground and packing it off on trains? Indeed, is there any government left?
From the beginning, the film feels like an uncomfortable mixture of Mad Max, Wake in Fright, and various other movies that have portrayed the Australian interior as a dark, violent place. The role of the existential anti-hero is played by Guy Pearce, as Eric – a grim-faced ex-farmer who has become the “rover” of the title.
When his car is stolen by a trio of hoodlums from outside a roadside café that seems more like an opium den, Eric sets off in pursuit. Failing in his first attempt, he finds himself hooked up with Rey (Robert Pattinson) the brother of one of the hoodlums, who is nursing a bullet wound to the mid-riff. For the rest of the film, Eric and Rey chase down the car thieves, sharing a few unpleasant, whiskery, sweaty adventures on the way.
There are several different genres scrambled into the mix: the road film, the buddy film, the lone avenger, and so on. It is also an aggressively masculine affair, with only two female roles, both brief and unconvincing. Behind everything lurks a vague political critique of a nation that has been swallowed up and destroyed by an all-powerful mining industry.
It’s hard to establish much momentum in a story set in a wasteland from which no escape is possible. Regardless of what happens, we will always be in the same place we were at the beginning. Michod’s surprise ending is barely more than a lame gag.
For a thin story there are far too many loose ends. We never learn what Rey and his brother, who both speak with broad American accents, were doing in Australia. We never find out anything specific about “the collapse”. It’s a mystery as to where anybody gets money in this world, ditto food and petrol.
Even if we assume that Rey is a simpleton, it seems absurd that he would identify with Eric’s cause so completely as to turn on his own brother and friends. It’s not easy to discern his motivations when Pattinson affects a hillbilly accent so thick it’s virtually incomprehensible. It sounds as if he has a mouth full of gravel and is forced to divert sounds through his nose.
Eric reveals enough about his past to expose himself as a damaged man – as if we hadn’t already guessed. Much of the damage seems to have been inflicted on his code of morality, as it’s never clear when he is going to blow someone away, or spare them, with tears in his eyes. The randomness of the violence has echoes of Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers, but the humour is missing. It’s a complaint that could be levelled against most new Australian films. If The Rover has any purpose, it may be to show us that unremitting bleakness doesn’t render a film deep and meaningful. It is merely an arty way of being shallow.
Directed by David Michod
Story by David Michod & Joel Edgerton
Starring Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy, David Field, Tawanda Manyimo, Dorothy Peeples
Australia/USA, rated MA15+, 102 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 21 June, 2014.